What to Wear to Synagogue?

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One of the most common searches that brings people to this blog is some version of “what to wear:” what to wear to a bar mitzvah, what to wear to an Orthodox service, what to wear to a Jewish funeral, what to wear to a bris. That’s a difficult question to answer, given that a reader might be anywhere and standards differ depending on where you live. I’m in California, where dress is extremely casual. I grew up in the American South East, where dress tends to be more formal. I’ve lived in Israel, where I have rarely seen a man wearing a tie at any event, no matter how formal, and … well, you get the idea. Given the reach of the Internet, the question is unanswerable as asked.

However, I can offer you some guidelines:

1. What do people wear to church where you live? That is a reasonable guide for most synagogues other than Orthodox synagogues.

2. Neither men nor women will go wrong covering their heads in a synagogue, but it will not be required in most Reform synagogues. Conservative synagogues are likely to require it for men and recommend it for women. When in doubt, ask ahead or, if you get there and realize everyone else has their head covered, ask an usher for help. Synagogues where head covering is the norm will almost always have some for guests to borrow. At bar and bat mitzvah services, kippot [yarmulkes or skull caps] are often given away as souvenirs with the name of the bar mitzvah and the date inscribed inside.

3. For an event at an Orthodox synagogue, unless you have specific info to the contrary, men and women both should cover all bare skin: no shorts, no short skirts, no tight clothing, either. Generally speaking, when I attend services or events at an Orthodox shul, I wear a knee-length or longer skirt with a top or jacket that covers elbows and collarbones. Men should cover their heads with a kippah (usually there is a supply of them at the door) and it’s a safe bet for women to wear a hat. Yes, you will look like a visitor but that’s fine, you will look like a visitor who cares about the sensibilities of the community.

4. Funerals are uniformly the most solemn occasions in any location. Women: dress soberly,with absolutely no “bling” and very little skin on display. Black is always a safe choice. If you are going to the cemetery, wear sensible shoes even if they look clunky with your outfit; cemetery grass is thick and lush. If all your outfits are lowcut or sleeveless, wear a shawl or jacket to cover up. Men: if you have a suit and tie, wear it. If you don’t, come as close as you can.

5. For Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, look at the invitation. If it specifies dress, believe them. If your daughter is insisting that everyone else is wearing miniskirts and strapless bustiers to the bat mitzvah service, phone either the synagogue office or the mother of the bar mitzvah (WELL ahead of the big day) and ask about dress codes. The same applies if your son is adamant about jeans and a tee shirt. These services are solemn events, and going to them dressed like you’re going to a disco is disrespectful to the congregation and potentially an embarrassment to the family.

The party afterwards may be a whole different matter, with a separate dress code. Again, if you have questions, call the family well ahead of time.

6. Your clothing need not be expensive to be appropriate for any synagogue event. Member families at any synagogue are like most families in your community: they come from all income brackets. The main thing is to be clean, tidy, and modest in your dress.

 Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by LizMarie_AK

3 Responses to What to Wear to Synagogue?

  1. I have to disagree regarding the b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, because in reality they’re usually a synagogue’s regular Saturday morning services. And I think congregants should feel free to dress as they please to attend their own regular services. I definitely don’t think anyone should feel a need to dress up if that isn’t their or their community’s minhag–or feel excluded by their wardrobe–in their own shul. B’nai mitzvah families and their guests are themselves guests of the regular congregation. It is not the other way around.

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    • rabbiadar says:

      Point well taken, Michael. This article is not addressed to regular congregants, though – they know what to wear – but to the hundreds of people who have googled “what to wear to bar mitzvah” and found their way to my blog.

      The regulars know what to wear, and how to behave. They set the norms for their community. This article is for the outsider who is frantically searching Google to try to figure out what to wear.

      But I agree, insiders are a different story. It is their synagogue home.

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  2. Dawn Kepler says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. I remember being called by the non-Jewish parents of my children’s public school friends to ask, how should my child dress? Most of them were not church goers so they couldn’t fall back on their own tradition for help. I was appreciative that they were wanting to do the right thing.

    In my community, the San Francisco bay area, dress is pretty casual in all the synagogues, though I always follow the rule you mention of covering my elbows and other aspects of modest dress – high neckline, long skirt – in my Orthodox shuls. I don’t want to be disrespectful of my friends & fellow Orthodox Jews.

    I had a woman call me who was just recovering from surgery and who was only physically comfortable in loose jeans. She wanted to try a service at my Reform synagogue but felt very shy about her clothing. I told her that a bunch of us would wear jeans the day she was coming. So there we were waiting for me, about 10 women in jeans. I loved the look on her face! Frankly, I don’t think any of the other members even noticed! But she did.

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